Last week, Larry Drake passed away at the age of 66, and I was pretty charmed to see how people were name-checking his most memorable roles in more or less equal measures. When Bruce Willis dies it'll be "John McClane RIP" for the most part, and Arnold will be Terminator (Sly will split the bill between Rocky and Rambo), but for Drake, it was like 1/4th LA Law, 1/4th Robert Durant, 1/4th Bubba (from Dark Night of the Scarecrow), and, of course, 1/4th Dr. Giggles, which I believe was his only lead role in a major theatrical release - name on the poster and everything. As a character actor, being a big lead probably was never part of the plan, making Giggles all the more peculiar and, now that he's no longer with us, extremely satisfying to watch if you're a fan of his unique screen presence.
If you've deprived yourself of this minor gem for the past twenty-four years, let me get you up to speed. Drake plays Evan Rendell, a man who has been in an institution since he was seven years old and believes that he's a doctor (his father was one, after all). When the movie begins he's busting out of the asylum and making his way back to his hometown, Mooreville, for reasons that are never really made clear (considering how easy it is for him to exit, I always wondered why he chose that particular day). Anyway, one Mooreville resident is Jennifer, played by a young Holly Marie Combs, who has a heart condition and is usually pretty much a buzzkill as a result of it. Her boyfriend, Max (Glenn Quinn, also no longer with us) keeps trying to continue their usual fun lives, but with her condition worsening he gets frustrated and, naturally, hooks up with the slutty girl in "the group" (which also includes Doug E. Doug - this is very much a '90s movie). As anyone can probably guess, eventually "Dr. Giggles" learns of Jennifer's condition and, since it's the same one his beloved mother had, takes it upon himself to fix her broken heart for good. The movie may be pretty silly/stupid, but I gotta give it credit for that part - I can't think of too many slashers where the villain's plan for the final girl was legitimately noble, regardless of how he may have gone about achieving it.
So it makes sense that an anomalous slasher would be played by a one of a kind type like Larry Drake. As revealed on the Killer POV podcast, Matt Frewer (Max Headroom!) was considered for the role, but Drake's imposing physique, previous turn as big bad guy in Darkman, and piercing eyes made him a perfect choice for Rendell. Frewer is a fine actor, but he's also kind of an everyman - he may often PLAY weird characters, but he could just as easily be cast as a little league softball coach or something. Drake, on the other hand, was ideal for an unmasked, quip-heavy slasher killer that had to be able to scare the audience when necessary but also keep them, er, giggling at his "so bad they're good" puns, and even evoke a tiny bit of sympathy given his rather heroic objective. With the exception of a few lines near the end when he's explaining himself to the movie's heroine, I don't think Giggles says a single thing in the movie that isn't a medical-related pun or one-liner - I suspect even the people who wrote all of Freddy's horrible jokes in the later Elm Street sequels would groan at some of this stuff. He can't even walk past a kid playing a video game (Dr. Mario, natch) without saying something meant to elicit laughter from the audience. In that case, off the kid's complete fixation on the game, he remarks: "Terminal," before heading out - he spares the young lad!
But don't let that sway you if you haven't seen the movie yet: he's a pretty efficient movie murderer, offing plenty of adults and teens alike and wasting no time in doing so. We've barely met most of Jennifer's friends before he wipes out four of them in typical slasher movie scenarios (namely: as they go off to have sex), not to mention the three people he killed during his obligatory institute escape, and two or three other town residents for good measure. In fact, we're in double digits by the forty-five minute mark, which is an efficiency even Jason would have to admire - though he admittedly does slow down some for the film's third act, as he focuses on Jennifer and her "broken" heart. However, director/co-writer Manny Coto (yes, the Dexter/24 producer) has a pretty good trick up his sleeve: he gives the 3rd act three would-be male victims - the cheating boyfriend, Jennifer's dad (Cliff DeYoung!) and the young cop whose partner clued him in to Rendell's history (and was later killed, giving the cop a bit of a revenge mission as well). We know Jennifer will be fine, but one or all of these guys can be goners, so whenever Rendell sets his medical devices (or a golf club*) in their direction, the suspense picks back up even if the body count isn't skyrocketing as it was in the first forty-five minutes or so.
Then again, maybe he had just run out of medical tools to use for kill scenes - Dr. Giggles is not a fan of reusing his implements, so everyone gets it a different way: a needle, a scalpel, a tube down the throat, even one of those little hammers that they whack your knee with to text your reflexes gets some play. He ostensibly carries everything in a little bag, which reaches impossible levels by about the twenty minute mark (it's not as bad as Shelley's in Friday the 13th Part 3, but close), so there's even some fun to be had guessing what he'll pull out next. And yet, despite the (intentional) silliness, there's actually a legitimate unsettling backstory, where Rendell's father sews his young son up inside his wife's/Evan's mother's corpse, discovered by the police as he is "reborn" (he also helped his dad murder some townsfolk, for good measure). Coto also adds a number of stylish sequences that give the movie a leg up on a lot of its competition - the hall of mirrors sequence is a knockout, and he favors overhead shots and other flourishes that keep the movie's lesser elements (bland teens, occasionally odd pace) from ever being a major issue. And when all else fails, he knows he can cut to Drake saying something punny and doing his creepy-ass giggle, and everything will get back on track.
Quick anecdote about the giggle - I hosted a screening of the film back in 2009 and Drake was on-hand for a Q&A, which for my midnight screenings we always did before the movie so that the guest wasn't forced to stay there until like 2 am or whatever to answer questions. So it's a pretty fun, normal Q&A (where he said he wasn't a big fan of horror movies even as a kid, saying even Exorcist - every actor's go-to example of quality horror - wasn't something that appealed to him), and then I turn it over to the audience. Most just asked about Darkman or his Tales From The Crypt episode... but then someone asked him to do the giggle. It's not uncommon for people to ask someone from a genre flick to say their famous line or whatever, and most of the time the guest will play along. However, Drake shrugged it off, which led to some "awww" from the crowd (and myself, internally), but he turned it from being awkward to being funny when he defended his decision: "You're gonna hear it for an hour and a half! Every five minutes, like a porno!"
Back to Tales From The Crypt, Coto actually directed an episode (not the one Drake was in), and that sense of humor is very much intact here, making me wish Universal (who originally distributed the film; it's in the Warner library now**) had started their Crypt series earlier with this - it's more in the spirit of the series than two of the three movies (Demon Knight being the obvious exception). Giggles is a lot like the Cryptkeeper in that the lines are often Henny Youngman-level (read: not particularly funny), but you can't help but laugh at them anyway given the macabre context in which they're often presented, and even some of the deaths fit into the over-the-top craziness of a certain type of Crypt episode - Giggles kills one girl with a giant Band-aid at one point.
It's also interesting to think about in terms of its placement in the slasher canon - released in late 1992, almost exactly on the halfway mark between 1989's trio of slasher icon disappointments (Jason Takes Manhattan, Dream Child, and Halloween 5) that put the sub-genre in a holding pattern, and its revival with Scream in 1996. Giggles kind of had the market cornered - Freddy had "died" the year before, Chucky's last movie (Child's Play 3) had disappointed, and the only other talking killer was Pinhead, who wasn't exactly a comedian. Clearly, Universal (and Dark Horse, the film's actual production company) thought audiences needed a new wacky killer to fill the void, but their timing was a bit off - the film was released one week after Candyman, which isn't really a slasher movie in my opinion, but it scratches some of those same itches (an iconic killer, a memorable weapon, gory death scenes). However you categorize it, everyone can agree that Candyman was something different, something more sophisticated, whereas Giggles was diving headfirst into the style that was on its last legs. Perhaps if the release dates were swapped the audiences would have turned them both into hits (it was October, after all), but seven days wasn't long enough for audiences to tire of Clive Barker's much scarier villain.
However, that's the very thing that makes me appreciate it more today - I couldn't have known it at the time, but it was the last original slasher movie to be given a wide release until Scream. In the four years between, we had sequels to about every franchise (including Candyman), but none of them really made a dent in the box office (and most were lousy), keeping any other attempts at originality from becoming a reality. Even post-Scream, there weren't a lot of originals - I Know What You Did Last Summer and Valentine were both based on books, H20 and Bride of Chucky were obviously sequels with a modern coat of paint, and then Scream itself got sequelized. Urban Legend was, if memory serves, the only original in that late '90s/early '00s bunch - and the whodunit nature of it (and the Screams) meant that there was no new icons, really. I mean, we have Ghostface I guess, but with someone different wearing the mask every time, it's not the same thing.
Long story short, Dr. Giggles was more or less the last of that "horror hero" breed for a long damn time, and thanks to Larry Drake's performance, it went out on a high note. Too many slashers just hire stuntmen to put on the mask, but Drake can join Robert Englund and Doug Bradley in that smaller group of '80s/'90s movie maniacs who had to be played by someone with actual acting ability. RIP, Mr. Drake - you may not have loved horror movies, but we sure loved you in the few you blessed us with.
* My absolute favorite one-liner in the movie and it's not even related to medicine - Giggles announces that it's "time to do what doctors do best!" and then the camera pans to reveal a bag of clubs.
** Via their Twisted Terror collection, which is only two dollars more than the stand-alone disc for Giggles (which is so bare-bones that it doesn't even have a chapter menu). I say it's worth the extra couple bucks for Deadly Friend and Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me. Warner DID release a Blu-ray at one point, on a double feature with Otis (?), but it's no longer in print. So if you're going to blind buy, the collection is your smartest purchase.